Why are rural North Dakotans not responding to the 2020 census?

Many of North Dakota's rural counties have self-response rates around 30% to 35%, according to a census map created by City University of New York.

The Census Bureau requires that census takers wear a mask while conducting their work. They will follow CDC and local public health guidelines when they visit. U.S. Census Bureau / Special to The Forum
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BISMARCK — For every resident who fills out the census, North Dakota will receive almost $20,000 in federal funding over the next decade, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. However, census officials are finding this financial incentive has not been enticing enough for North Dakotans to fill out their 2020 census.

In a majority of North Dakota's counties, census response rates for 2020 have been significantly lower in comparison to its response rate a decade earlier, which is surprising to some since 2020 is the first year the census has been available to fill out online.

The state's self-response rate is in line with the nation's at about 63%, but it is only because North Dakota's metropolitan areas like Fargo and Bismarck have self-response rates above 70%. Many of North Dakota's rural counties have self-response rates around 30% to 35%, according to a census map created by City University of New York.

"Personally, I ponder this question a lot: Why don't people take the census?" said Kevin Iverson, North Dakota's Census Office manager. "The answer seems to be either 'I don't care' or 'I'm mad at the government.'"

The census is meant to count everyone who resides in the United States.


This massive undertaking is completed every 10 years per the U.S. Constitution. The data collected by the census determines how many U.S. House of Representatives seats each state gets, as well as the allocation of hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funds.

Iverson said not taking the census is like ignoring and walking past a $5 bill every day for the next decade. A person would need to put each $5 bill gathered each day into a communal fund, but it would benefit everyone in the end, he said, adding he does not understand why people do not take the census.

"I really struggle to get that point across to people who just don't care," Iverson said. "They don't care about their children? They don't care about their neighbors? They don't care about their parents? Who don't they care about?"

Mistrust in the census is not a new phenomenon, said Janna Johnson, a University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs professor who studies census undercount.

Mistrust can be dated back to the 1980s, as some people do not feel comfortable giving out information about themselves to anyone, particularly the government, she said. The distrust in the census can also be attributed to a lack of education about the heavy protections surrounding census data.

"The Census Bureau cannot share information with any other government entity," Johnson said. "Many people do not realize the protections in place and how strong they actually are."

She said she finds it ironic that some people are unwilling to give information to the government about how many people live in their homes, yet they feel comfortable posting daily updates on social media platforms, like Facebook.

"It's unfortunate, because this data is so important," she said.


About 37 of North Dakota's 53 counties are below the national average in self-response rates, said Linda Svihovec, co-chair of the state's Census 2020 Complete Count Task Force

Census Bureau employees are out in neighborhoods knocking on the doors of households that have not self-responded to the census online, by phone or through the mail. The non-response follow-up interviews conducted by the Census Bureau are critical to count many of the country's populations that have historically been undercounted, like Native Americans and people who live in rural areas.

The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly affected the 2020 census, and many of its phases were months behind the original schedule.

Earlier this month, the Trump Administration announced it would revert back to the original timeline to conduct household interviews, essentially reducing the amount of time employees have to count those who had not self-responded by one month. Johnson said this move will adversely affect communities of color and historically undercounted populations.

One of North Dakota's most undercounted areas includes the Bakken Oil Patch, Svihovec said. Workers often live in the area for a few months of the year, and it can get confusing for some people about where they should fill out their census, she said.

Residents should fill out the census based on where they were living as of April 1.

Some people in the Watford City area feel the state and federal government have not been reporting COVID-19 numbers correctly, which is fueling their distrust in the census even more, said Daniel Stenberg, co-chair of McKenzie County's census counting committee. He said many people in the area are very private.

"People are just generally more self-reliant in rural areas," he said. "They don't necessarily go look for government to answer any of their problems."


Another population that is difficult to count is North Dakota's tribal nations. In the 2010 census, the Indigenous population on reservations was the most undercounted of any group in the U.S., with 4.9% not being tallied, according to the Census Bureau.

The state's tribal nations are working hard to ensure all of their citizens are counted, as the tribes receive millions of dollars in federal funding. The results of the 2020 census will determine "distribution of almost $1 billion in annual federal resources for Indian Country," according to a National Congress of American Indians report.

Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Chairman Jamie Azure said last month much of the tribe's undercount can be attributed to historical trauma and people being wary about sharing personal information.

"Information has been passed down from generation to generation, and that has been from our elders passing it down to the next generations," Azure said. "The historical trauma still lays in the weeds a little bit because of that."

The state continues to encourage residents to complete the census, and it created several census kiosks in locations throughout the state. Many rural areas are holding census-taking events and raffles people can enter to win prizes for taking the census.

"(The census) is kind of mundane, but it's so foundational and we gotta get this right," Iverson said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at

Michelle (she/her, English speaker) is a Bismarck-based journalist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and Report for America, a national service organization that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered topics and communities.
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